Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia's 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House - photo by Prudence UptonDuring one of the most lyrical arias in this opera, gazing from the balcony of their home overlooking Lavendar Bay, Wendy sings to Brett Whiteley, Don’t look at me. Look at what I see. It’s a moment that succinctly pinpoints the inspiration for some of Whiteley’s most successful paintings.

The opera begins with Brett Whiteley gazing frustratedly at one of his final works in his Surry Hills studio. It ends with a moving trio, set in Wendy Whiteley’s famed secret garden in Lavender Bay with which Whiteley’s ex-wife, Wendy, his daughter, Arkie and mother, Beryl reflect on Brett’s life. Because both these locations still exist in Sydney, and are easily visited, the effect is startling.

Between these two events, Justin Fleming’s libretto focuses on key events which proved turning points in Whiteley’s very public career. His early London success in becoming the youngest-ever artist to sell to Britain’s Tate Gallery – his failure to impress the American art market – his expulsion from Fiji because of his drug use – his descent into drug addiction through his efforts to capture on canvas his very darkest drug-addled visions – and through it all, his relationship with his muse, Wendy and their daughter, Arkie.

It’s a journey that is both fascinating and frustrating, particularly for those in the audience who either knew Whiteley personally or through his artworks or the many books and media reports spawned by his tempestuous career. Because, by necessity, some of the references are brief, many will find themselves compelled to trawl back through those books to discover the significance on Whiteley’s career of some of the characters portrayed in the opera.

Kats-Chernin’s music, as superbly interpreted by the Opera Australia orchestra under Tahu Matheson, is lush, evocative, sometimes atonal, but always accessible and strewn with lovely melodies.

The scene in which the Christie murder victims sing from the walls in which their bodies are entombed, is particularly haunting, both aurally and visually, as is her music for balmy Fijian scene, at first relaxed family  holiday mood but cleverly underscored to foreshadow the families’ unexpected expulsion for drug possession. Her big choruses are thrilling and marvelously sung by the Opera Australia chorus.

British baritone, Leigh Melrose, makes an impressive Opera Australia debut as Brett Whiteley. Bearing a striking resemblance to the artist he sings strongly in a compelling performance which despite his character’s apparent penchant for pompous declarations about his place in art history,  convincingly charts Whiteley’s frustration as his powers decline with the onset of his heroin addiction.

As his soulmate and muse, Wendy Whiteley, Julie Lea Goodwin also gives a memorable performance capturing perfectly Wendy’s realization that despite their love for each other, and their daughter Arkie (Kate Amos), she is powerless to save Brett from his devils.

Among the large supporting cast, Dominica Matthews as Beryl Whiteley, Richard Anderson as Joel Elenberg, Nicholas Jones as Wendy’s lover, Michael Driscoll, Gregory Brown as Patrick White, Alexander Hargreaves as Robert Hughes, Tomas Dalton as Bryan Robertson, Jonathan Alley as John Rothenstein, Brad Cooper as Frank Lloyd, Leah Thomas as Anna Schwartz, Angela Hogan as Janice Spencer and Sitiveni Talei as a Fijian Police Officer – all add to the enjoyment with strongly drawn characterizations.

Designer Dan Potra has made ingenious use of huge LED screen reproductions of Whiteley’s most famous paintings to illustrate his state of mind at key points, as when his work is being rejected by Frank Lloyd, or when he’s painting Wendy in the bath, or to flood the stage with spectacular imagery for the scene in which Whiteley is presented to the queen. Revolving stages allow characters to glide seamlessly from riotous parties to romantic bedrooms.

Brett Whiteley lived life on an operatic scale. Opera Australia has invested huge resources to do that life justice. Hopefully the enthusiastic audience response to this short season will have been sufficient to ensure Whiteley a place in Opera Australia’s repertoire.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Saturday 27 July 2019 – 2.00pm
Season continues to 30 July 2019
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au

Image: Leigh Melrose as Brett Whiteley in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Whiteley at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens OAM